I didn’t have much more to say about this issue until I read John Stoudt’s response to my last post. [By the way, I love the fact that I can now link to your profile page if I want to single you out.] Stoudt asks if the Biblical justifications of slavery by Thornton Stringfellow, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Benjamin Palmer, and others should not count as examples of American Exceptionalism. Well, that depends. If our goal in teaching this concept is to impose our own assumptions about the significance of American history than perhaps not, but if the focus is on how Americans at different times understood their nation than it seems to fit in with the “City Upon a Hill”, “Manifest Destiny”, and the “White Man’s Burden” and Cold War ideology.
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I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective. We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862. We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation. One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox. On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation. It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.
Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery. We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union. I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish. A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation. We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union. At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation. In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty. With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war. I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union. To be completely honest, I never thought of this.
I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful. The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion. With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher. As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.
I do my best to try to be a clear as possible on this site. Of course, I do not always succeed, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why fellow blogger and APUS History teacher Chris Wehner is having so much difficulty understanding my position on American Exceptionalism [and here]. It’s one thing to disagree with me, which is something I have no problem with whatsoever and even encourage, but why does he continue to attribute positions to me that I’ve never expressed? In his most recent post, and after hurling insult after insult in my direction, Wehner has this to say about what might be behind my comments:
However, I will offer a guess. (Note, this is my own personal opinion!) Levin has issues with the Republican Party going back to Reconstruction and what they failed to accomplish. He is also disappointed in what the American Revolution failed to accomplish. He is very much like Howard Zinn. But that is the problem, America was exceptional for what it was attempting. It initially failed to live up to our modern and presentists views. I wish our Founders were able to give equality to all, though nowhere else on such a scale was there anything close to early America in terms of political participation.
Thanks Chris, that was truly enlightening. I sure could have used you the other day in class to help me with a lesson that pushed my students to understand the various factors that prevented most Southern slave owners from emancipating their slaves after the Revolution. The goal of the lesson was to move beyond our own expectations to better understand the challenges that these men faced on a political/cultural/social and economic level. Yep…sounds a lot like presentism to me. I find it hard to believe how anyone who has followed my blog over the past few years could possibly arrive at such a characterization of my approach to history and/or the teaching of history.
Well, at least he remembered to provide a link this time around.
As some of you know I use the Dixie Outfitters website to give students in my Civil War courses a sense of the continued hold of the Lost Cause on our culture. In addition to examining the page devoted to their preferred view of the Civil War we do a quick survey of some of the t-shirts. This year one particular shirt caught the eye of my students, which gave me a chance to discuss the history and myth of black Confederates. We examined the t-shirt which depicts the Chandler Boys, which contains the following caption:
Black Confederate Silas Chandler carried his wounded boyhood friend, Andrew Chandler, several miles on his back before loading him on a box car headed for an Atlanta hospital. After the war, they returned to their homes in Palo Alto, Mississippi where they remained close friends till death. Silas Chandler received a Confederate veteran’s pension and today lies in a grave decorated with a Confederate Iron Cross placed by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Well, you can imagine my surprise when one of my students presented me with my very own Chandler Boys t-shirt. You may also be surprised to see that the student in question is African American. The story is pretty funny. Apparently, the store owner was very surprised to see a young black woman in his store asking for this particular t-shirt. The owner was pleased, however, to see that she was aware of the rich history of black Confederates and encouraged here to share this story with her friends. Needless to say, I was relieved that my student resisted getting into a debate about this subject as I am sure the store owner would have been defenseless against this student’s vast knowledge.
I was trying to find the perfect post to demonstrate the benefits of threaded comments as well as the other features that Disqus offers and came across the following from January 6, 2009 on Lee and historical memory. It’s not the post that I want you to focus on, but the comments. First, I think the discussion moves much more smoothly with the threaded format, but more importantly, your comments are incredibly thoughtful. Readers are engaged with the topic at hand and are listening to one another. Hell, I don’t think you are going to find a more thoughtful and intelligent group of readers anywhere else in the blogosphere. Give yourselves a hand and give Disqus a try.